It’s time to get real about free higher education

No matter at what level we cap free education, we run into the issue of how to pay for it. (John McCann/M&G)

No matter at what level we cap free education, we run into the issue of how to pay for it. (John McCann/M&G)


As populist politics threatens to derail another academic year it is time to sit back and reflect on practical reality.

First, there is the question of the affordability of free higher education. Under Pravin Gordhan’s watch, the South African Revenue Service (Sars) exceeded annual targets by billions of rand. This financial year, Sars is likely to miss its target by more than R50-billion. Under the watch of “pro-poor” President Jacob Zuma, inequality has grown.

If even a fraction of the state capture claims in Jacques Pauw’s book, The President’s Keepers, is true, we have a government for cronies, of cronies and by cronies — with a good sprinkling of collusion with gangsters thrown in.

That answers a good part of the question of why free higher education and other parts of the Zuma camp’s populism are not affordable and not going to happen.

Turning this all around could be as simple as appointing competent, incorruptible revenue collection and law enforcement leadership. This is not impossible. It has been done before, and can even be done without undoing cadre deployment. Most of the top people ousted for excessive competence were ANC loyalists — just not Zuma sycophants.

In practical terms, unless the ANC can get its house into order, free higher education amounts to another empty promise that can at best be implemented in a half-assed way that will leave many disappointed.

A big reason for this populist posturing is undercutting the appeal of the Economic Freedom Fighters.  The EFF has grown in stature. Their performance in parliamentary inquiries has been incisive and has, among other things, exposed the shallow sham of Lynne Brown’s Eskom mismanagement.

EFF leaders have also impressed by improving their qualifications. Julius Malema followed up his bachelor degree by completing his honours at Unisa last year. I cannot emphasise how impressive it is to finish a degree on top of his heavy political workload. EFF national spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi completed a PhD in 2017.

The EFF needs to shed one odious aspect of their brand of populism — using their most vulnerable supporters as cannon fodder. We have seen this in land invasions, where the homeless and destitute are encouraged to take on the government’s failures to deliver land. I have yet to see a story in which one of these protests succeeded in winning land.

In university protests since 2015, the cost to students has been high, with some jailed and others suspended or expelled. Some cases may be contestable but those students will, at best, have a long hiatus from their studies while these matters wend their way through the courts and, at worst, may never complete their studies. Others have performed badly because of time lost to protests.

Against the backdrop of EFF leaders furthering their own qualifications, how is it justifiable that EFF student members are expected to forfeit theirs to the cause?

The EFF’s 2018 walk-in registration campaign has turned out to be more disciplined than past campaigns and hopefully this is an indication of a tactical change.

Student protests since 2015 have raised two questions: Why is it necessary to protest as if we are in a police state and why have universities and government responded as if we are a police state?

A big part of the problem is vacuous populism. If the Zuma bubble has finally burst, and the EFF is becoming more strategically sophisticated, maybe we can start to do better. Another part is unimaginative responses from university administrations.

Most university administrations have dismissed free education without digging deeper than the budget bottom line. This is not good enough. If government were competently run, this could well be affordable.

Any means-tested system creates anomalies and the potential for cheating. We already have one system that is calibrated by relative wealth — income tax. No matter at what level we cap free education, we run into the issue of how to pay for it.

And it is hard to avoid the problem of the “missing middle” — those who don’t qualify for fee breaks but still can’t pay. The simplest thing by far is to increase tax rates on those who could afford to pay. Because a significant fraction of those taxpayers will not have students in their family, the extra tax burden should, in principle, be affordable — particularly if flaws in tax collection and law enforcement are addressed.

That is only the start of a much bigger debate about the size and shape of higher education. As a country with a developing economy, why are we so obsessed with university? Infrastructure in my town, for example, is not failing for want of lawyers. Trades and other hands-on skills need far more attention. Why did we abolish technikons as well as teaching and nursing colleges? Have teaching and nursing improved since? Who is training up the army of electricians we need to invest seriously in green power?

That some are starting to see through vacuous populism is a plus. What remains disappointing is the low level of engagement with these issues in academia.

Universities should have a bigger investment than anyone in solving these problems. Let’s start talking.

Philip Machanick is an associate professor of computer science at Rhodes University

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